Old MacDonald had a frieze

27th June 1997 at 01:00
Emma Burstall finds partially- sighted children love clay models of farm animals

Ryan Martin-Wood's small fingers move eagerly over the clay animals in front of him, feeling for pointy ears, curly tails, long muzzles.

On finding a cow, the two year old moos delightedly, and when he comes across a pig he makes a loud snort.

Ryan, who is partially sighted, is a big fan of the Old MacDonald's Farm three dimensional frieze created by artist Kit Anderson for children at the Nottinghamshire Royal Society for the Blind's Early Start nursery, which he attends.

Ms Anderson, 35, who studied for a City and Guilds qualification in ceramics at Arnold and Carlton College, Nottingham, decided to make the 2.5 x 0. 33 metre clay and grout panel after watching a television programme about a company that manufactures tactile surfaces for blind people.

"I had been thinking about one of the projects I had to do for my course, which was to make a large-scale tile panel," she explains.

"I decided if I was going to make something that size I'd like it to be useful."

At the time, Ms Anderson's son Max, five, who is sighted, was attending the Early Start nursery, which has a policy of integration and accepts a small number of sighted children each year.

"I decided it would be nice to do something for Max's little friends and realised I could do a lot with clay because it's so tactile," says Ms Anderson.

Making the frieze was a steep learning curve. When she first approached nursery supervisor Claire Chilvers with a working design, the artist was asked to go back to the drawing board.

Ms Chilvers explained that the stylised pictures of animals she had produced were meaningless to blind children.

"In most children's books, pigs are drawn as round blobs with stubby little feet," Ms Anderson says. "But blind children don't understand this sort of illustration. Their pictures need to be realistic so they can recognise the animal from trips they've paid to farms."

Ms Anderson decided she wanted the frieze to work for partially sighted children too, so she made sure the colours - mostly strong reds, greens and yellows - worked in blocks so they are easier to see.

And she spent a lot of time creating different textures for the animals and objects on the farm. Each wall brick is in relief and the bales of hay are coarse and lifelike.

"I was aware that sheep and cows don't feel the same," says Ms Anderson. "So although I couldn't reproduce their texture exactly, I made them as different from each other as possible."

Arnold and Carlton College provided the clay and facilities for the frieze, while Ms Anderson's partner, cabinet maker Lucius Engel, donated the wooden frame.

The finished work, which took the artist more than a year to complete, was finally put on display earlier this year.

"It's well used and that's the main thing," Ms Anderson says. "It would be such a shame to spend all that time on something just to stick it in the bedroom to gather dust."

There were a few technical problems along the way because the panel took so long to make and the clay did not dry out evenly, causing some warping. But the project was worth the effort.

"I've learned such a lot about visually impaired children. I never realised how much as a sighted person you take for granted," Ms Anderson adds.

Claire Chilvers is delighted with the frieze. "It is very good for developing tactile awareness," she says. "Blind children can develop tactile defensiveness and become reluctant to reach out and touch unfamiliar things.

"Old MacDonald's Farm helps build up their confidence. It is also a useful tool for improving the language of visually impaired children."

Staff recently arranged for some farm animals to come to the nursery which the children were allowed to touch and stroke. In groups of two or three, they were then encouraged to feel the frieze and talk about what they found.

"The children love it," Ms Chilvers says. "It's so big and there's so much to explore. Some of them spend ages playing with it."

u The Early Start nursery, funded by the Nottinghamshire Royal Society for the Blind, accepts children from birth to five years. Specifically designed to cater for theneeds of visually impaired children, its premises are colour co-ordinated and include a special, sensory garden and a sensory room.

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